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Western Press Review: Macedonia, EU Diplomacy, Belarusian Elections, Chechnya

Prague, 7 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary and analysis in the Western press today looks at the NATO mission in Macedonia and what will follow after its 30-day deadline expires, the EU's diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, and European cooperation with Russia. Analyses also focus on Belarus, as Belarusians head to the polls on Sunday (9 September) in presidential elections. Other topics addressed include the conflict in Chechnya and the ongoing trial of eight foreign aid workers in Afghanistan.


In the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," columnist Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger joins the chorus of voices that has recently called for an international peace presence to take over in Macedonia once NATO's Operation Essential Harvest mission runs its course. He says that, without such a force, "it will be impossible to calm the shaken country and stabilize the fragile peace."

The question is who should lead the follow-up operation -- whether NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union or the United Nations. Frankenberger writes: "We know what to expect from NATO, even with subordinate U.S. involvement. Observers from the OSCE and troops from the European Union member states would be an acid test of the first order. In theory, this combination would have a certain logic because the EU is in the process of completing its [diplomatic] toolbox -- prevention, crisis intervention and reconstruction all from a single source." But he reminds us, "It has to be effective, too."


An editorial in the "Financial Times" considers the increasing role of the EU in the Middle East. Throughout the Mideast peace process, the U.S. has remained what the paper calls the "only relevant mediator" between the Palestinians and Israelis. Now that peace initiatives have collapsed into violence, the U.S. is keeping its distance.

The "Financial Times" writes: "Worried that the diplomatic vacuum could trigger a wider regional conflict, European foreign policy officials are taking turns in holding talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. [Of] course there are strict limits to what the EU can achieve on its own. [Nor] is there a consensus in the EU on measures that would bolster diplomatic efforts. Europe has far less leverage than the U.S., and it has yet to win Israel's trust. [But] as the biggest donor to the Palestinians and Israel's partner in an association agreement, the EU has the means to exercise some pressure."

The paper concludes that these diplomatic efforts on the part of the EU represent an exercise in "damage control." As the editorial says, "EU diplomacy is better than no action at all. It has the merit of at least maintaining indirect contact between Palestinians and Israelis. At best, European efforts will lead to a resumption of some sort of political dialogue and a reduction in the level of violence -- which may encourage more engagement from the U.S."


A contribution in the "Financial Times" by Charles Grant of the Center for European Reform looks at the EU's relations with Russia and the opportunities for further cooperation. He says that both Russian and EU policy makers are showing a growing interest in strengthening ties. Discussions on energy cooperation have already made progress, allowing Russia to boost exports and giving the EU access to more secure supplies.

Grant suggests that the best way "for the EU to anchor Russia in a Westward-leaning direction would be to offer the prospect of a joint EU-Russia political structure." But he adds that "there is still much Russian resistance to opening up."

Grant writes: "Closer ties between the EU and Russia must include a frank dialogue on human rights. Russia's progress over the past decade has been impressive, but the war in Chechnya is a scar on its reputation. [For its part,] the EU could do a lot to improve its image in Russia by reforming its visa regimes."

He notes that the EU has indicated that when Russia joins the World Trade Organization, the EU will negotiate a free-trade area with them. Grant writes: "The WTO will require Russia to make painful changes, such as opening financial and telecommunications markets, enforcing rules on intellectual property, lowering many tariffs and reforming customs procedures. This is one reason why talks with the WTO have stalled. [But] if Russia made an effort, it could join the WTO in 2004."


In "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Amanda Watson Schnetzer of the U.S.-based think tank Freedom House considers this Sunday's presidential elections in Belarus. The campaign leading up to the elections has been much-watched around the world as suspicions abound that incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has not allowed his leading opponent, Uladzimir Hancharyk, to campaign freely -- even shutting down press runs of his campaign literature.

As Schnetzer puts it: "In the lead-up to this weekend, Mr. Lukashenka has taken extraordinary steps to ensure the defeat of opposition candidate Uladzimir Hancharyk. The president's plan reportedly calls for tampering with voter registration lists, stuffing ballot boxes, forcing compulsory early voting at state-owned enterprises, and more. To distract voters from these civil-liberty violations, the government has scheduled festivals, beauty contests, and sporting events around the country."

Schnetzer says that support for the Lukashenka regime is waning, both inside Belarus and abroad. "Politically, Mr. Lukashenka presides over an autocratic regime that stands accused of killing [political] opponents. Even Russia, Belarus' strongest ally, appears to be distancing itself from the erratic leader. [The] best evidence that Russia's once unwavering support for Mr. Lukashenka is wavering is his failure to secure a [Russian President Vladimir] Putin endorsement in the upcoming election. Instead, Russian broadcast media [have] aired allegations of government-sponsored death squads and given impartial coverage of Mr. Lukashenka's opponents."

Schnetzer writes: "As Belarusians prepare to vote for president this Sunday, it is important to recall that after his genuine victory in 1994, Mr. Lukashenka promised economic renewal and assured voters that 'there will be no dictatorship.' Seven years later, it's obvious the president has reneged."


In French daily "Liberation," Minsk correspondent Helene Despic-Popovic calls Lukashenka "the autocrat of Minsk." The president did not even need to campaign, she says, because the main television stations covered his travels throughout the country while giving very little air time to his main rival, Uladzimir Hancharyk. The central election committee also proved itself loyal and ever-watchful by imposing a fine on the opposition candidate for distributing T-shirts during a meeting.

Despic-Popovic says Lukashenka guides his country by "appointing, revoking or transferring high-ranking civil servants according to his whim." But Lukashenka has been meeting with difficulty even within Belarus. He sparked crisis and controversy with a referendum in 1996, in which he prolonged his term and limited the powers of parliament. The intelligentsia sharply criticizes his neglect of human rights, the harassment of the press and the disappearances of political opponents.

His country has not pursued the reforms that have swept through the other former Soviet-bloc nations, Despic-Popovic writes. Condemned by the international community with the exception of Russia, Lukashenka is totally isolated.


In "Eurasia View," CIS affairs analyst Igor Torbakov writes: "The second year of the second Chechen war is ending, and a decisive military victory for Russian forces over [what it calls] 'illegal militant formations' remains almost as distant as it was in the fall of 1999. Moscow seems to be losing its resolve," he says. "As the Russian death count gradually keeps rising, the debate among military planners and policy makers on how to end the fighting in Chechnya is intensifying."

Torbakov says, "In its quest for a solution of the conflict, the Kremlin now appears to be looking for an influential Chechen interlocutor, who could not only sign a peace deal, but, more importantly, also guarantee the strict fulfillment of any treaty's provisions."

Attention is turning to the controversial Khozh-Ahmed Nukhayev -- an influential Chechen politician and the reputed boss of the Moscow Chechen mafia in the 1980s. He is also the designer of a complex peace plan. Torbakov quotes "Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye" journalist Valery Ivanov as saying, "Looking for a way out of the Chechen blind alley, the Kremlin seems to be showing signs of its interest both in Nukhayev and his plan."

But it is unclear whether Moscow will back him, Torbakov writes. He has been linked to subversive, anti-Russian activities in Chechnya, as well as to prominent Western leaders -- including former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Despite these concerns, Torbakov says, "Moscow seems to have no alternative to Nukhayev."


The "Wall Street Journal Europe" carries a contribution by author Melik Kaylan on the Taliban. Kaylan cites UN sources who state that millions of Afghans have fled to Pakistan and Iran, while those who remain behind face famine conditions. He writes: "Unable to put food in their mouths, [the regime] hopes to distract them with myths of ever more imminent conspiracies against their religion. In so doing, the Taliban are driving off the only remaining source of sustenance available to many of their citizens: humanitarian aid from outside."

In addition to humanitarian concerns, the ideology of the Taliban is problematic, Kaylan says. He writes: "What really should concern Muslims everywhere is that [Taliban supreme leader] Mullah Omar claims common cause with them, and presumes to represent them, especially in the eyes of non-Muslims. The Taliban have far more in common with likeminded non-Muslim tyrants down the ages, even with such notorious enemies of Islam as [Josef] Stalin and [Slobodan] Milosevic, than they do with other Muslims. [In] fact, the Taliban have almost succeeded in furnishing a retroactive propaganda victory ... [It] is now that much easier to use the horrors of Afghanistan under Taliban rule as an example of any society allowed fully to pursue its Islamic identity."

Kaylan emphasizes that the Taliban follows "one interpretation of Islam, and an anomalous one in the context of Muslim states through the centuries. Historically, the tolerance of other religions has been a common characteristic of Islam."

He concludes: "[Long] after the Taliban have joined the dust of the ages, the other Islam will abide."